The Galleries of Justice Museum is situated in a part of the Lace Market in Nottingham, where the current Shire Hall stands, and was the base for Nottingham’s original Saxon settlement, known as Snotta inga ham (meaning village belonging to Snotta). The current building on the site was used as a gaol and recent clues, found by archaeologists in the caves below the building, indicate that this site may have been used as a location for crime and punishment from as early as the Saxon Period. The project collaboration was born out of the ‘Narrating the Past’ project, an investigation into how film and theatre narrative techniques can be used to enhance real-time interactive virtual heritage sites by researchers at Nottingham Trent University.

The initial pilot project began in 2008 focusing on the Greens Mill heritage site in Nottingham. The research revealed how immersive virtual spaces can be a powerful narrative tool to engage audiences in an experiential journey of the site.

Initially the scope of project only covered making a video walk-through, however it was felt that it was not comparable to the existing live tour. Therefore the project developed into an interactive tour, using games technologies that allowed the visitor to navigate themselves through the virtual space to see the lower parts of the building. However, to only provide a walk-through, where the audience move or “fly” through the space, to see its architecture and layout was not considered sufficient . It was essential that the virtual model should not be perceived as a limited version of the real tour but be regarded with the same objectivity. In order to maintain a connection to the real site and engage the visitor it is imperative to also embed the site’s social history within the virtual tour. For this reason it now contains audio, video and effects that provide atmosphere and narrative to tell the story of the building and give a sense of place to the 3D environment.

Funding for the project was acquired by the Galleries of Justice through Nottingham City Council’s Aiming High project that encourages groups and families caring for children with learning and physical disabilities to get out into the community. The grant covered the development of the real-time virtual tour as well as purchase of display equipment.

The first phase involved the digital construction of 3D models of the Women’s Laundry, Sheriff’s Dungeon and the Night Cell by final year undergraduate Multimedia students utilising the existing plans and photographic references. The 3D digital models were then rendered and made into an animated video walk-through with an atmospheric audio commentary. Having a predefined tour option is useful if any visitors have usability difficulties with the real-time environment. The second phase was to make the tour interactive and real-time, one of the major strengths of the virtual reality medium is its relationship to the body and the environment, and the visitor can now inhabit the space and interact with it. The users have the ability to control their own point of view as they move and look around the space, similar to a first person computer game.

Making the real-time (games) environment entails importing the 3D digital models into a real-time software programme. In this project Quest 3D was used because it is easily customised and has a graphical programming interface that does not require the user to have extensive computer programming knowledge. Other games engines were considered for producing the work, however the licensing of the Quest software made replication of the finished project more viable. One drawback of using this Quest 3D software is it is only suitable for PC based systems, limiting its potential for distribution amongst different computer platforms.

When designing the user experience and incorporating a sense of presence, ‘being there’ is central to the design of the virtual space and requires more than lifelike reconstruction of the environment. A good storyteller can conjure up and animate the spirit of history. The power of these stories should not be underestimated – they are significant in enriching the visitor’s experience of historical memories and culture and are engaging and entertaining as well as educational. They are therefore essential to consider when designing the virtual tour. By including elements such as audio, video and visual effects the virtual space was “brought to life”, providing a more dynamic experience and increasing the visitor’s sense of presence in the ‘space’. As the visitor moves around each simulated environment the voice of the tour guide is triggered; flicking torches, fire, steam, embedded video of the prisoners and sound effects all augment the various virtual spaces generated in real-time.

The virtual tour is designed as a linear narrative ensuring that it mirrors the nature of the live Crime and Punishment tour. The visitor encounters the virtual tour approximately a third of the way through their visit. As the rest of the tour descend into the basement, the virtual tour visitor sits in front a large screen display and navigates their own way through the virtual spaces, using a special assistive joystick made by Traxsys. The virtual tour guide can be heard as he explains the social history of the Galleries. At the end of each area and as his talk concludes another entrance opens, allowing the visitor to continue their journey. This project only touches the surface of what is possible with this medium as the priority of this project design was to provide a similar experience to those who are able to access the basement and those who are not. Further development could allow greater interaction with the objects, the prisoners and the stories they may tell. Using different user profiles, representing various historical perspectives could create an even more dynamic and personal experience.

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